Civilizations by Laurent Binet - what if the Inca conquered Europe?

I haven't read this book myself, but I think it's quite interesting because it seems like a more "conventional" novelist trying out alternate history. There's a few cases of that before (Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, you could *maybe* describe Infinite Jest as taking place in an alternate history by this point though it's more of a satirical future dystopia, and even John Updike had one weird novel that takes place post-nuclear war), so it's interesting to see a writer of perhaps what critics would label as "literary fiction" trying his hand in our genre. Though there have been alternate history by sci-fi novels that I would characterize as literary, in that they make social commentary and have some sort of deeper metaphysical meaning- The Man in the High Castle and Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt both qualify imo.


What if the Inca Conquered Europe? A Novel Rewrites History.

By Randy Boyagoda
  • Published Sept. 14, 2021Updated Dec. 8, 2021
CIVILIZATIONS
By Laurent Binet
Translated by Sam Taylor

For his next feat, Laurent Binet should write a children’s book in Python code, or recreate the Bible as a cellphone contract, or translate Socratic dialogues into two dogs sniffing each other at the off-leash park. His debut, “HHhH,” was a meta-historiographical telling of the 1942 assassination of the alpha Nazi Reinhard Heydrich; its successor, “The Seventh Function of Language,” was a detective story about the sudden death of Roland Barthes that treated 1970s French literary theorists like louche rock gods and badass gangsters. His latest, which attests to his status as one of the most intellectually game writers of our time, is a totalized counterfiction of post-1492 world history.

“Civilizations” opens as a heroic Norse legend about the exploits of Freydis Eriksdottir. In Binet’s telling, she leaves behind her father, Erik the Red, to lead a 10th-century crew of loyal Greenlanders to Lambayeque, in northern Peru, where they settle peaceably with the locals. Moving ahead 500 years, Binet works up entries from Christopher Columbus’s God-besotted and misery-filled diary after he and his men cross the Atlantic and begin exploring the Caribbean, only to be fatally outmaneuvered by Taíno royals and warriors.

Then come the life and exploits of the early-16th-century Incan emperor Atahualpa. According to the established historical account, he was executed in Cajamarca, present-day Peru, by the Spanish not long after defeating his own brother, Huáscar, in a continent-spanning civil war. In Binet’s version, young Atahualpa faces only his brother in this conflict and manages to escape Huáscar’s forces by boat. His companions: a pet puma, a small group of fellow Quitonians and the multilingual Cuban princess Higuénamota, his most beloved and politically astute wife. Inspired by distant memories of the otherwise forgotten Columbus, they sail east, eventually arriving in a strange new place: “All of them — men, women, horses, llamas — had survived the great sea. They had reached the land of the rising Sun,” otherwise known as Portugal.

Counterhistorical fiction can provide dopamine-like delights when a writer successfully reverse-engineers the established hierarchies and terms of conventional history, geography and intercultural encounter. The highborn newcomers from the west, a land known as the Four Quarters, first meet in the east lowly “men in brown and white robes, the tops of their heads shaved,” who “knelt on the floor with their hands joined and their eyes closed, muttering inaudible sounds.” A very different kind of believer himself, Atahualpa calls for a ritual burning of meat to honor his sun god. The dirty, sickly, starving locals, who, like the monks, worship a “nailed god,” are drawn by the smell, and to the pitying disgust of the Quitonians, devour the sacred offerings and anything else they can find. Sensing weakness and opportunity all around him, Atahualpa begins making moves.

The Incan’s success owes a great deal to Europe’s fundamental divisiveness, Atahualpa’s own temperamental pragmatism and a reconciliation with his brother, who agrees to support Atahualpa’s campaign to rule the new “Fifth Quarter” to their mutual wealth and protection. After a quick and merciless massacre in Toledo, with tolerance shown for minorities otherwise facing the terms of Inquisition-era Catholicism, Atahualpa takes over Portugal, moves on to Spain and then begins dealing as an equal or better with Italy, France, England and Germany, all variously caught up in the fractures of the Reformation and anxieties about encroaching Islam.

Deploying the dutifully admiring voice and stilted, decorous style of an unnamed historical chronicler, Binet recounts court intrigues, diplomatic negotiations, religio-political conflicts, military expeditions, major battles, alliances made and broken through money and marriage and regencies, and also the expenses and problems of governing ever more land and people. All the while, Atahualpa’s looking out for better deals, possible betrayals and new challengers. Countless ordinary people die along the way.

If Binet played around with literary forms, genres and voices in his earlier fiction, here he and his translator, Sam Taylor, adopt them more straightforwardly, to balance out his imaginative incursion against history itself, even if this means the book can often be boring. This is a defiant, purposeful, unapologetic kind of boring. The very nature of a comprehensive chronicle of large-scale geographic, political, financial, religious and lineal conniving and convolution is necessarily complicated and dry, whether as history or counterhistory.

Fortunately, Binet’s historical feints afford imaginative frissons and relief from paragraph after paragraph of dutiful play-by-play about an empire in the making. Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam exchange spirited letters about the possible harmony between Atahualpa’s sun deity religion and Christianity, while fretting about Henry VIII’s temptation to leave the church for a faith that doesn’t worry much about divorce and remarriage. Needing money from the German über-banker Jakob Fugger, Atahualpa agrees to get rid of Martin Luther for him, which in turn leads to theatrical public disputations and to someone nailing the “Ninety-Five Theses of the Sun” to the wooden doors of a German Incan temple. Machiavelli’s writings prove crucial to Atahualpa’s strategies and success; Copernicus’s heliocentric treatise is very well received by a sun-worshiping royal patron; Titian makes a series of paintings of the emperor at important moments; Michelangelo carves a statue of Atahualpa’s beloved Higuénamota “that can be found today in the great temple in Seville.”

Eventually, Binet torques his own fabulist arrangement: Mexican colonizers arrive in northern Europe. They are already overwhelming Huáscar back in the Four Quarters and are keen to take over the Fifth, too. A whole new set of geopolitical reimaginings and gyrations begins, which, amid much else, eventually sends a downtrodden Cervantes to this novel’s Old World to become an indentured writer. Binet ends by slyly inviting us to imagine Don Quixote, tilting at Aztec pyramids. Bravo and all, but after 300 pages, the counterhistorical starts to lose its charge, more predictable than provocative.

Binet proves, however, more than only a Borgesian magician. As much is evident, for instance, in the letters Atahualpa exchanges with Higuénamota while the Mexicans are advancing across France and the emperor is losing battles and allies fast. They write with the high tone and reserved style befitting both their stations and Binet’s unstinting devotion to form and genre, but greater feeling nevertheless emerges. It’s the feeling two people have when they have gone through much together, only to discover that they are suddenly, decisively living through history — on the losing side.

Correction: Sept. 14, 2021

An earlier version of this review misstated where the Incan emperor Atahualpa was executed by the Spanish. He was put to death in Cajamarca, present-day Peru, not Quito, present-day Ecuador.

Randy Boyagoda’s new novel is “Dante’s Indiana.” He is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

The Times has also previously covered the book and Binet here:

 
Sounds a little over the top and implausible, but I'm a sucker for Tawantinsuyu anything.
I think when you involve authors from outside of this genre that's the sort of allowance you might have to make. A lot of times these stories sound more fantastical than conventional AH.

Not an example of a literary writer, but Stephen King's 11/22/63 had some pretty implausible pocket timelines getting spun off, like President George Wallace. (Though that was probably in keeping with the dystopian horror nature of his time travel.)

Turns out Wikipedia has a few more examples of non-AH authors (and non-sci-fi, non-military) writing AH on one section - had no idea Kingsley Amis(!) and Nabokov(!!) have written AH before. I like how the former's sounds like fairly rigorous world-building and the latter sounds like a Russian version of The Man in the High Castle.

As a short example of implausible reverse-imperialism happening, written not by a famous literary writer but in a lovely literary style, I quite like the short story "The New World" by blogger Paul Burgess, about a fictional Chinese explorer discovering the Americas during the early Ming dynasty. (He also wrote a few other works, including another AH short story "The Wingmen are Back in the Caucasus".
 

Worffan101

Gone Fishin'
I think when you involve authors from outside of this genre that's the sort of allowance you might have to make. A lot of times these stories sound more fantastical than conventional AH.

Not an example of a literary writer, but Stephen King's 11/22/63 had some pretty implausible pocket timelines getting spun off, like President George Wallace. (Though that was probably in keeping with the dystopian horror nature of his time travel.)

Turns out Wikipedia has a few more examples of non-AH authors (and non-sci-fi, non-military) writing AH on one section - had no idea Kingsley Amis(!) and Nabokov(!!) have written AH before. I like how the former's sounds like fairly rigorous world-building and the latter sounds like a Russian version of The Man in the High Castle.

As a short example of implausible reverse-imperialism happening, written not by a famous literary writer but in a lovely literary style, I quite like the short story "The New World" by blogger Paul Burgess, about a fictional Chinese explorer discovering the Americas during the early Ming dynasty. (He also wrote a few other works, including another AH short story "The Wingmen are Back in the Caucasus".
That's fair. And I am interested in pre-Columbian PODs and reverse-colonialism is inherently amusing to me.
 
I had bought it when I had seen it lying in the bookstore.
At first it seemed like one of those 'good, but not great' books.
Then I had encountered the point in which the king of England converts to the worship of the Inti; I then immediately put the book away and have never read in it again; why don't let Earth be invaded by Martians also?
An Incan invasion of Europe is implausible, but necessary for the plot; however, a king converting to the worship of Inti on his own without being overthrown? That is not necessary for the plot...

Thinking back about it it made me think about a quote I had since then read on TVTropes:
"And besides, I remember what Wells said; Wells said that if there is a fantastic fact, it should be the only fantastic fact in the story, because the reader's imagination — especially now — does not accept many fantastic facts at once. For example, he has that book: The War of the Worlds, which deals with an invasion of Martians. He wrote this at the end of the last century, and then he has another book written by that date: The Invisible Man. Now, in those books, all the circumstances, except for that capital fact of an invasion of beings from another planet — something in which nobody had thought then, and now we see it as posible — and an invisible man, all this is surrounded by trivial circumstances to help the reader's imagination, since the reader tends to be incredulous now. But despite having invented it, Wells would have ruled out — seeing it as difficult to execute — an invasion of this planet by invisible Martians, because that is already demanding too much; which is the error of scientific fiction today, which accumulates prodigies and we do not believe in any of them."
— Jorge Luis Borges, Dialogues.
 
Top